Writing for the Internet: Same Message, New Style (Part 2)

Note: The following is the second part of an article based on a speech presented at “Shaping Public Opinion: The Power of Digital Communication,” the Association for Women in Communications Professional Development Conference, Westchester, New York, May 18, 2001.

Those who browse on the Web scan editorial material, searching for points of specific interest. They are hunters in an electronic jungle rather than foragers on the open plain of hardcopy, if you will.

Usability experts John Morkes and Jakob Nielsen maintain that the goal of these hunters is “to find useful information as quickly as possible. When a page comes up, the visitor focuses on the center of the window and reads the body text before bothering to look over header bars or other navigational elements.”

So let me ask, just what is writing for the Web?

Is it…

  • PR “stuff”: releases, fact sheets, backgrounders, bios, white papers, FAQs, and so on?

  • Corporate Web sites, commercial B2C sites?
  • Navigational, site-guide copy?
  • Features, news, information, or entertainment content (which often means TV, films, or cartoons, not words at all)?
  • Email?
  • E-zines?
  • News and discussion, chat room, commentary?
  • Catalogs, business-to-business (B2B) commerce sites?
  • Microcontent?
  • Metatags, links, code?

Actually, it’s all of the above and more. However, in this formative world, we still face the same audiences. But it is a world filled with its own inherent dangers:

  • Speed (click-click, send [oops!]) — does anyone still write first drafts on paper?

  • Do we religiously use spell checkers?
  • Do we also use grammar programs?
  • Do we always print out to proofread?

What kind of writing works on the WWW? (Drum roll, please.)

Text is still the basic building block of the Web. Content is still king. A well-conceived, well-written, and well-edited page or document is easier to read on the Web, as elsewhere. Text plays a key role on the Internet, but it plays an altered role. Text is site content. It is where the content lives. The words are not on a page. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

But text is also an aid to orient the reader’s navigational system. We are no longer primarily readers on the Web. We are visitors, browsers, surfers — anything but static, and text plays a different role. So how to best greet these happy visitors to our Web sites? Since we often cannot control how visitors arrive, we should include some basic text at the top of every Web page to orient our guests: microcontent.

Microcontent is a new Web tool; it includes headlines, subheads, linking text, navigation-bar text, and so on. It should be self-explanatory and should provide context, not depend on it. It should answer these questions: Whose site is this? What kinds of information does this page contain? How much information is on this page? Who is this information intended for?

Microcontent must consist of little pearls of clarity — no more than 40 to 60 characters to explain the macrocontent. Microcontent should clearly explain what an article is about in terms that relate to the user. Unless the title or subject makes it absolutely clear what the page or the email is about, users will not open or read it.

Microcontent serves as a billboard for macrocontent. Write in plain language: no puns, no cute or clever headlines. Do not use teasers to entice people to click to find out what a story is about. We won’t wait for a page to download unless we know what to expect. Even then, we won’t wait for the paint to dry while a fat page loads. In print, curiosity gets people to turn the page or to start reading an article; online, the wait can simply be too painful.

Let’s move on to content, text, copy, and communications and discuss techniques to improve one’s writing for the Web. As writers, we make it easier for people to read and understand a Web page by putting on our editor’s hat. Editing the work (or thinking like an editor while you write) is as important as the writing.

A few guiding principles:

  1. Never bury your lead. Web users are notoriously flighty. Don’t make people wade through background, or corporatese, to eventually arrive at your point. They won’t follow you.

  2. Tight writing is best. Ditch prepositional phrases. Avoid the passive voice, and be sensitive to tone and flow. But don’t edit so tightly that your writing becomes choppy and abrupt and interferes with readability.
  3. Take advantage of the structural opportunities that hypertext or hyperlinks offer, but don’t get carried away. Use hypertext to break pieces of a document off to separate subpages or to make connections to other pages on the site (or outside the site) to add context or depth.
  4. Write your own microcontent, including the text for navigation within the document. Don’t leave this important task to the Web designer; don’t leave any text decisions to the designer. Microcontent is an editorial issue. If you’re writing about new software, write your own subheads for the sections (or subpages), then add a collection of links at the top of each page that corresponds to the heads and subheads. The links function as a summary of the piece and allow one to jump to the desired section.
  5. It’s important to understand when redundancy in Web content is and is not OK. If a text-based work is divided on multiple Web pages, any one of which theoretically may be accessed first by the visitor, you may have to repeat some information from page to page. Just don’t force readers to jump around too much and lose their place.

Obviously, writing for the Internet isn’t just a matter of pouring print onto a Web page and expecting the reader to enjoy it. This is an interactive medium, and we should expect the reader to want to respond and become engaged rather than simply read the text top to bottom.

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